By: Deanna McMichael
It’s a complex question that concerned parents of an alcoholic son ask every day. Addiction in a loved one is as frustrating as it is devastating. Often, it is the cause of anxiety and sleepless nights. Your son may be drinking too much, living at home, suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD) or any combination of the many consequences of problematic drinking. You are left to struggle with the question, “How do I help my alcoholic son?”. As a parent, you want to do all the “right things” to help your child, but might have no idea what these things may be or where to start. You love your son unconditionally. You see their potential. How do you intervene? What if they don’t want your help? What if you’ve tried to reach out in the past and it’s only ended in heartache? Here are some steps that you can take to help yourself and your son:
1. Educate Yourself on Alcohol Addiction
They could stop if they really wanted to!
This all started because of that stupid friend they were hanging around!
If only they hadn’t lost their job, they wouldn’t have been in so much pain.
These are some of the many misconceptions about addiction. For example, do you know the difference between problematic drinking and a diagnosable alcohol use disorder (AUD)? Do you know the significant signs and symptoms that indicate alcoholism? Many people believe that alcoholism is a choice, that it’s simply a matter of willpower. However, science continues to debunk this misconception.
Neuroscience shows that drinking and drug use influence brain activity. Long-term use affects neural functions related to learning, stress, behavior, and decision-making. Many people believe that a “single culprit” caused the addiction. However, research continues to show that many biological, psychological and socioeconomic factors can play a role in developing an addiction.
As a parent, educating yourself on addiction allows you to understand your son and their situation with more clarity. It also allows you to understand how complex AUD is and what you both are up against. A loving, supportive parent, who understands their child, the disorder and available treatments will make you a powerful ally in your son’s recovery journey.
You can find more information on AUD here.
2. Recognize Who Owns the Problem
Many parents want to blame themselves for their child’s behavior. They analyze what they did (or didn’t do) and they may berate themselves for making mistakes. The person with AUD may try shifting the blame towards the parent and see themselves as a victim, which only reinforces this cycle. The truth is that your child is an autonomous adult. They are capable of making conscious and proactive decisions.
“To rescue people from the natural consequences of their behavior is to render them powerless.”
― Dr. Henry Cloud
As Cloud and Townsend explain in their book: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, when you blame others for your emotions you give them power over your happiness. If you don’t “make” your son drink alcohol, you cannot “make” him stop. As frustrating as it may be, your son is the only one who can decide to seek treatment. Playing the role of a rescuer undermines your son’s ability to feel empowered to make the decisions that they need to make to change their unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as drinking).
Healthy boundaries are the key to strong relationships, despite the initial consequences of placing these boundaries being difficult, inspiring feelings of guilt or creating conflict. Of course, you don’t want your child suffering. Maybe you’ve always stepped in when they’ve needed you. However, you cannot hold yourself liable for your son’s addiction. This can be a challenging reality for many parents to accept. You do not own the problem, so you cannot fix it.
3. Identify your Boundaries
Loving someone struggling with addiction can be incredibly painful. One moment, you may feel appreciated and respected and the next, discarded and humiliated. Having boundaries protects your integrity. It honors your individual needs and acknowledges the needs of other family members, such as your spouse, siblings or other children.
If you want to help your son, you need to work on and protect your mental health too. The Serenity Prayer, has various versions, but has been embraced by Alcoholics Anonymous for decades. It has a beautiful way of explaining boundaries:
“…grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Boundaries are very personal, but focus on what you can change. You must identify what you are willing to accept and not accept from your son. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Every parent has his or her limitations and guidelines. These boundaries may change over time, and that’s acceptable, too.
Boundaries may include:
- Prohibiting drug or alcohol use in your house.
- Refusing to allow friends who use substances or drink into your house.
- Refusing to pay legal costs or bailout fees.
- Limiting financial resources.
- Refusing to lie or “cover up” the drinking.
- Setting physical limits in the home.
Make some time to identify your boundaries. You may want to work with a therapist or mentor to establish these. It’s normal to feel guilty or “bad” about having these limits. Try to remember that you are making these boundaries so that you no longer enable your son.
Boundaries only work if you consistently implement them. If you set boundaries without following through on agreed consequences, your words stop mattering. These are not healthy boundaries and, despite them easing short-term conflict, they are not strengthening your relationship or aiding your mental well-being. Your child will continue their behavior. As a result, you risk building a deeper and deeper resentment towards both them and yourself.
4. Consider staging an intervention
If your son does not (or will not) acknowledge their drinking problem, you may need to consider staging an intervention. Interventions, when done effectively, can be incredibly powerful. They can also be extremely emotional.
Interventions work when all loved ones come together, unilaterally, to show their love and support for the struggling individual. These are not meant to be confrontational or judgmental; they are intended to be loving, honest and firm. Loved ones set their intentions and define their boundaries should the individual refuse to seek help.
Interventions can elicit a whole range of emotions, not just painful ones. Your son needs to be reminded of how loved and important they are. Interventions can also include loved ones stating why they care about your son and why they chose to be there. Each intervention will be shaped by the individual who needs help and their loved ones.
Know that interventions do not always have happy endings. Sometimes, the person will refuse help. Respecting boundaries can be painful for both parties, but acknowledging their drinking problem and deciding to seek help must be your son’s decision.
Choosing to hold an intervention needs to be made intentionally and carefully. If you are considering this route, it may be beneficial to consult with a trained interventionist. These professionals support families through this process by helping each family member identify his or her needs, facilitating the intervention and finding treatment referrals.
If you would like help planning an intervention and preparing a plan to encourage your son to enter a treatment program, we can help. Call Lakeview Health at 866.704.7692.
5. Support recovery needs
You can play an invaluable role in helping your son receive the treatment they need. Part of setting your boundaries will include what you are (or aren’t) willing to do to help your son. For example, addiction may have left your child facing financial wreckage and unable to afford the professional support they want and need. Your boundaries must look at whether you will offer financial support. You are under no obligation to “fund” your child’s treatment, but you need to identify if and how you can support him should he decide that he wants to pursue recovery. If you cannot support them financially, but want to help your son get into treatment, you can work with the treatment center to find the care (or the appropriate referrals) that will best support your son.
If your son decides to seek treatment at a rehabilitation facility, they will be working with a designated treatment team. This typically includes a case manager, therapist, and psychiatrist or medical doctor. This team collaborates to figure out the best treatment options for your son. Trust that this team has your son’s best interest at heart. Know that your son may not always see eye-to-eye with these staff. This can happen due to denial, resistance, lack of motivation for change, or even personal differences. It is essential that you first discuss your concerns with the professionals before reaching out to your son.
6. Participate in family therapy and family programs
Successful treatment centers include the entire family system when treating addiction. If you have the possibility to attend family therapy or intensive family workshops, you should take advantage of these opportunities. Family engagement allows you to be a part of the growth and healing process. It also encourages you to obtain your own mental health tools and resources. In family programs, you will also meet other people going through the same stress as you. This creates a sense of normalcy and reminds you that you are never alone in your struggles.
7. Find your own support
There’s no doubt that addiction is a lonely battle. However, loving and supporting an alcoholic can be just as lonely — and just as stigmatizing. Unfortunately, many parents “lose themselves” while trying to help their children. They focus all their attention on the addiction; they obsess over daily whereabouts; they hang onto every word and promise said to them. This cycle can be exhausting and heartbreaking. Regardless of your child’s recovery journey, you must honor your own recovery from the throes of addiction. This recovery may come in the form of support groups (like Al-Anon), individual therapy or even spiritual connection. It may come in the way of reconnecting with old friends or passions. Remember that you are allowed to get your own help. You are allowed to seek your own support. You are entitled to find happiness, contentment and peace.
Final Thoughts on How to Help an Alcoholic
As a parent, you will never stop worrying about your child’s well-being. You loved your son unconditionally from birth and you will continue to love them throughout this tiring process. Your support matters, but so does your mental and physical health. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself during this time. You don’t need to rescue anyone. You only need to be the loving and compassionate support that your child has always needed.
At Lakeview Health, we are passionate about helping both individuals and their families recover from the perils of addiction. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.